Ben Weidel-Kaufmann: Two Exhibitions of paintings by Pete Hoida

'The Black Morar Series' at the Museum in the Park, Stroud, and 'Paintings 70's, 80's, 90's, 00's' at St Mary of the Angels, Brownshill, June/July 2013

Moreninta Silenciosa by Pete Hoida
Moreninta Silenciosa, 2011, 105 x 244 cm

There is much to be thankful for in the dogged determination of Pete Hoida’s generation of British abstract practitioners. Sustained by close friendships and a passionate commitment to the historical continuum of painting rather than professional allegiances, commercially rewarded nihilism or over-theorised (and under realized) notions of political agency, they have long been carrying the flag for an ambitious programme of abstraction. In the face of relative institutional neglect and the divergent ambitions of younger generations they have continued, in varying degree, to make art which is sincere in its commitments and experimental in its approach. This combination is in abundant evidence across Hoida’s two current exhibitions in Stroud, and is very rarely accorded enough value.

A corollary of relative institutional neglect is a tendency towards ossified critical positions. Caught up in the backlash against Greenbergian aesthetics, a tendency to ‘bridge the gulf between the ardent spirituality of the Abstract Expressionists… and the over-cool design-conscious aesthetic of the post painterly generation’ [1] has been read all too frequently as historical anachronism, formalist dogma or outmoded stagnation. Hoida’s work reminds us of the fallacy of such dismissals. Whilst Hoida no doubt establishes a dialogue with mid-century American painting – from the formal and gestural concerns of the Abstract Expressionists through to the surface treatments of Frankenthaler, Olitski and Poons – it is the wealth of visual propositions and the vivacity of the pictorial incidents carried in the work that accounts for its power.

Ezekiel by Pete Hoida
Ezekiel, 2011, 106 x 124cm

My introduction to Hoida’s work came a month ago through a small catalogue of the exhibition of new work on display at The Museum in the Park in Stroud. Moreninta Silenciosa, 2012, had impressed in reproduction – appearing to extend connections to Robert Motherwell’s Elegies and Hoyland’s late infinity space paintings. It was my pleasure that such comparisons were proved to be, at best, simplistic. Whilst the central cluster of paint does have something of the Elegiac, the tonal and gestural modulations within the form capture our intrigue in the flesh. The swirls of curving paint, which alternate between a transparent ghostly presence and a gestural, roaming calligraphy, in fact seem closer to Pollock than Motherwell (though they are much more measured). Controlled within a formal unit, however, the gestural marks remain balanced within the wider spatial structure of the painting. Our minds may glide over the dynamism of the marks, but it is their resolution within the canvas as a whole that holds our attention.

If there is undoubtedly a basis of comparison with Hoyland (and Olitski) in the cosmic sense of deep space that opens up behind the foregrounded form, Morenita Silenciosa complicates the spatial continuum. With the hold of the pink and white blobs on the surface, the scattering of yellow across the celestial backdrop, the shadows of black which sit as ripples in the ground, the playful impression of what looks like a barbeque grill burnt into the upper right, the carefully modulated drips which anchor the central form to the edges and surface of the canvas, we are given a tremendous range of marks and gestures. This punctuates the seduction and ease of visual habitation we feel before Hoyland’s late sublime and creates a more complex structural rhythm across the canvas and between the surface and recessional space than we find in Olitski. We are held between structure and expanse, recession and flatness, sublimity and artifice.

Sprechgesang by Pete Hoida
Sprechgesang, 2012, 92 x 243cm

The range of perceptual incidence offered by these alternations – above and beyond any theoretical complexities – marks their appeal. The four works in the show which broadly mirror Morenita Silenciosa’s format, show Hoida playing with the lowest thresholds of his colourism and holding it in balance with a subtle tonal control. The paintings have a dusk-like quality – their small flickers of colour by turn illuminating or emerging from the half-toned backdrops. In balance with the baroque space of the ground the licks of paint reveal Hoida’s mastery of colour as a spatial agent. As such, we gain a hint of Matisse’s influence or the white surface flickers of Constable, in paintings that, in reproduction, seem to be millions of miles from either.

In Sprechgesang, the format is complicated – compellingly so – by the intrusion of a second globular entrail, which hugs the horizontally stretching central form. Here a representational flicker of passing clouds is too strong to go unnoted, but the strength of the association lies not in any representative fidelity so much as in a phenomenological association. What strikes is the harnessing of a sense of liminality often experienced in landscape. Above and beyond any specific passing of clouds the relation of the two forms – their locking, mirroring and weighted interaction – evokes something of the perceptual tension experienced in constructing a memory – the strange sensation by which we feel ourselves fixing our impressions of visual incidents in landscape, even as we remain aware that the real force of what we see lies precisely in its temporal unfolding. This sensation of loosely harnessed instability resonates across much of Hoida’s oeuvre and perhaps best summarises the strong, but somewhat elusive, relation of his work to the natural world. In his approach to edge, space and structural disposition the architectonic never quite succeeds in interrupting the sensation of transience. [2] This persists even amidst the paintings with geometric elements, which could be seen, broadly, to make up the rest of the exhibition of new work; from the clear foregrounding of geometric units against the edges of the canvas in works like Joshua and Ezekiel to the floating, near-geometric forms in Fire in the Iron or Big Pitman.

Big Pitman by Pete Hoida
Big Pitman, 2013, 110 x 239cm

Of the four Big Pitman, 2013 is by a distance the most ambitious painting. Here Hoida seems to be setting the more architectonic balancing of tonal units across the canvas which characterized his work of the preceding period (see The Pearl-Oyster and the Fox Fur, 2009 – on show at St Mary of the Angels) in a dialogue with the kind of dappled infinites and subtle tonal modulation of the recent work. There is something decidedly and joyfully anarchic in the complexity of the result – with drips, stains, washes, veils, dapples, strokes and sprays of paint combining to create something closer to the excitement of deep spatial articulation in early Russian constructivism than the expanses of late Hoyland.

Joshua by Pete Hoida
Joshua, 2011, 133 x 38cm

Big Pitman is a painting I would like more time with as I left remaining unconvinced as to whether it resolves. For all the baroque variety of incidence, the fixity of that (hyper foregrounded?) white in the centre seems to sit awkwardly amidst the diverse textural (but much less definitive spatial) assertions of the surrounding canvas. There is a floating sensation – of a distinctly deep space variety – but the central form draws us away from the surrounding interplays time and time again. The surround has a tendency to assert itself as textural – like veils of spatially charged chainmail sheeting – but does not hold our focus nor create an architectonic balance to match the progressive thrust of the central form.

Fire in the Iron by Pete Hoida
Fire in the Iron, 2012, 131 x 135cm

Fire in the Iron, 2012, for me veers too far in the direction of a centralized form against an unconvincing ground – and may offer a note of warning. The strange yellow anchor lines reduce the spatial construction of the scene to something approaching a representation of a space satellite in front of a pebbledash cell diagram. Whilst the variety of marks continue to impress they too often feel in conflict with the spatial assertions of the ground. We can circulate the form, but its centralized grip against the unambiguously flat sprays and drips reduces the image quality and spatial interplay to a kind of roughly organized Halley-like frontal form floating before a textural, slightly recessed, but ultimately disappointingly flat ground.

If such works sometimes fail they also reveal the extent to which Hoida continues to push his work in new directions – to combine surface, marks, structure and colour in renewed formats and not to rest upon the spatial or structural accomplishments of previous bodies of work. It is a refreshingly open approach that suggests a deep confidence in the continuing possibilities offered by his practice and the importance of finding new means by which to enrich the perceptual potential of abstract painting.

Weston Central by Pete Hoida
Weston Central, 1993, 118 x 282cm

Hoida’s tendency to alternate and test new formats is visible across the three decades of work on display at the small church in Brown’s Hill. Three paintings in particular caught my attention. Weston Central, seems to suggest that the Halley comparison may be more than just a reflection of the recent preoccupations of this site – its florescent pink, topped with scrawling white and green lines have a synthetic bombast that brings back something of Halley’s anti-pastoral preoccupations. What marks it out though is more familiar – a lingering sensation of indeterminacy, the refusal to reduce edges to definitive divides, the extension of diverse spatial and textural assertions around which we must feel our way through a process of mutual inflection – a canvas which cries out to be inhabited even as the surface complicates our motion.

The Pearl-Oyster and the Fox Fur by Pete Hoida
The Pearl-Oyster and the Fox Fur, 2009, 65 x 221cm

The Pearl-Oyster and the Fox Fur, 2009 and Damson Hull, 2008 show an array of modulated tones, gestures and textures interlocking in what is perhaps (to followers of Hoida’s generation) a more familiar structural layout. The works are, despite the generational association, accomplished and embody something fantastically incomplete, their variously handled (semi) planar slabs, seeming to float behind the surface in a perpetual instability, our eyes slipping over their edges and around the spatial and structural assertions of the scene. Here, once more, is that sense of liminality and perceptual intrigue. The subtle disposition of colour and structure, space and surface, offer a range of visual incidents that seems to be forever arrested in the process of transformation.

Damson Hull by Pete Hoida
Damson Hull, 2008, 136 x 324cm

Pete Hoida’s two exhibitions serve as a potent reminder of the strength of a generation of English painters who continue to find their inspiration in the realm of the visual possibilities of abstract painting of broadly Greenbergian lineage – but also look far and wide in their exploration of paintings’ continuum. The paintings’ charm derives from the rich visual incidents they continue to gather in their midst. Far from the elitism with which such a lineage is charged by post-modernist attackers there is a fantastic accessibility to Hoida’s painting. It was an accessibility I felt most forcefully on my return from his exhibition, listening to Miles Davis’ trumpet against Jimmy Cobb’s soft snare drum in Blue in Green and glancing out of the train window to note the dappled yellow and green of a passing rape field. The soft interpenetration of texture, tone and rhythm alongside a certain excitement in my knowingly futile attempts to fix something of their fugitive presence in my mind resonated strongly with Hoida’s painting.[3]

Pete Hoida: The Black Morar Series 2010-2012 is on at The Museum in the Park, Stroud until the 7th of July. Running simultaneously at St Mary of the Angels, Brownshill, Stroud is Pete Hoida: Paintings 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, 00’s.

[1] Alan Gouk: New Paintings, Poussin, 2012

[2] This interpretation was given considerable succor by a brief conversation with Mel Gooding, during a chance meeting as we passed around the retrospective exhibition.

[3] This ending was written before reading Sam Cornish’s rather similar account of Motherwell on the bus. Passing windows seems to be in the air.

Review published on Abstract Critical June 2013